Proven Winners

Does it matter if things have been proved or proven? I ask this as a grammatical question, not a philosophical one about the nature of evidence. Does it matter if one uses proved or proven as the past participle of the verb prove?

If you’re in the it-doesn’t-matter camp, you’re not alone. But the it-does-matter camp is not deserted (yet).

Bryan Garner is one of the folks in the latter camp. In Garner’s Modern American Usage (third edition), he writes, “Proved has long been the preferred past par…


Giving Words


A Friendsgiving in Brooklyn, 2015. Photograph by Ethan Brooks.

When I saw an article on Friendsgiving in The Wall Street Journal last week, I knew I had a topic for the day before Thanksgiving: giving words. A long list, that is, of words ending in -giving, like those two. (Friendsgiving, we’re told, is Thanksgiving dinner with friends rather than family.)

To my surprise, however, the -giving words are scarce as turkeys’ teeth. A Scrabble website finds just 10, not all related to the Thanksgivin…


The Unsuitability of English


Utrecht, Holland— My mission in this pleasant central Holland town: giving a keynote address at the 25th anniversary conference of Sense (originally the Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors, now a general professional organization of anglophone editors in the Netherlands) in the palatial surroundings of the beautifully restored 16th-century Paushuize (pictured). Knowing that the editors and translators who belong to Sense are much concerned with …


Don’t Cuff Me

6357923692149811561460154598_new_cuffs.jpg_54b114b6542723fd2c6c2060536438b6.imgopt1000x70Happy start to cuffing season. Yes, folks, it officially begins today.

I just learned the term cuffing season four days ago, and already I know I cannot talk about it without showing my age. The phenomenon it refers to has been around, probably, for centuries: the tendency of humans to “cuddle up” as the weather turns colder and to seek freedom when the flowers come out in the spring. But its specific contemporary reference, and the advice that goes along with it, feels less anthropological …


A Day in the Life of a Lexicographer

David Barnhart comes from a lexicographical dynasty. He and his late brother, Robert, have both been in the profession of making dictionaries, following in the footsteps of their famous father Clarence L. Barnhart, author of the Thorndike-Barnhart series of dictionaries. David now works at home and in the local libraries, finding and defining words for his quarterly journal, The Barnhart Dictionary Companion.

So what is his day like? He starts by reading the paper and listening to news on the r…


Who That?


“By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!”

Last week, referring to Ben Carson’s (supposedly) terrible temper, Donald Trump said, “I don’t want a person that’s got a pathological disease.”

What caught my eye was that he didn’t say, “… a person who’s got a pathological disease.” For some years, I have been noticing that my students favor the choice of that over who as a relative pronoun; I did some grumbling about it here, lumping it with other popular usages (“one-year anniversary” inste…


Approaching Partial Zero



When I first heard of a partial zero-emissions vehicle (or PZEV, a fun acronym to say), I wondered if it was a line from a joke. But no. It is a line from a vehicle category designed to circumvent requirements like California’s demand that zero-emissions vehicles be produced by a certain date. There are technical specifications for a PZEV that have to do with exhaust emissions and fuel-system emissions. For a language columnist, however, the interest lies in the modified absolute.

Sticklers l…


Lectern or Podium?


Prof. Dumbledore stood on a podium to speak from his owl lectern.

Today’s investigation into the Oxford English Dictionary concerns two words, with a small hope that we can figure out what it is we talk in front of, or on, or near, when we’re before our students.

The handsome Latinate word podium originally referred to a raised platform that provided a protected seating area for the emperor. It is, of course, related to the root pod-, from the word for foot, and most senses of the word invoke t…


A Postcard From Bilbao


Guggenheim Musem Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman in foreground. [[Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, Wikimedia Commons]]

Bilbao, Spain

People whose experience of Spain goes back many decades tell me that Bilbao was once a nondescript little steel town on a polluted river, best driven past and avoided on your way to somewhere nicer. But today, as I stroll along the riverfront walk overlooked by the grandeur of the University of Deusto, and watch cormorants dive into the Nervio…


Professorial Parlance

Thomas_Nagel_teaching_EthicsLike my colleague Ben Yagoda, I was intrigued by Teddy Wayne’s recent New York Times article on modes of speaking, but for a different reason. Toward the end of the article, Wayne observes that, unlike social-media writers or radio hosts,

In disciplines like academics, technology and finance, many speakers pepper long speeches with “right.” Their pitch does not rise on the word, which comes in the middle of a series of statements — “analytics are most valuable over long periods, right, t…